Synergy and serendipity

I KEEP LOOKING for a term – the opposite of ‘a perfect storm' – to describe the synergy when a series of good events and people accidentally come together to create an outcome that none could predict. That is what happened as a result of the rare combination of creative energy and intellectual rigour in teaching visual art in New South Wales. I was a school student in 1962 when the state's great education revolution, the Wyndham Scheme, began to make an impact. Teachers were anxious but intensely focused as they faced huge changes in the curriculum. We were the first students to spend six years in high school, and the first to have major works of art marked externally. A generation later, when my children were at school, it was more relaxed and more methodical. They learnt about art through different frames of reference and produced process diaries to accompany their major works. Visual arts had become a pathway to thinking about concepts well beyond my adolescent experience.

As Australia inches towards a national curriculum in English, maths, history and science, arts education is put in the too-hard box. The arts may be increasingly important, but the challenge of designing a curriculum that covers the visual and performing arts, music and screen at varying levels of skill and analysis is daunting. A patchwork of different approaches has evolved in Australia – some world leading. A national curriculum needs to draw on the best, and find a way to navigate the jealously protected differences between states.

Over the past three decades, the teaching of visual arts in New South Wales has diverged from the rest of the country to become an international leader in linking cognitive development to visual understanding. Paradoxically, one reason for this innovative approach was the decision not to create a specialist art course until well after other states. Instead, a series of serendipitous events supported the inverse perfect storm: a shortage of qualified staff; an artist who was a teacher and arranged for his students to be exhibited in commercial galleries; an innovative head of art in a teachers' college who was not prepared to see the discipline downgraded; a group of education scholars who were able to apply their passion to creating an art curriculum and an annual exhibition of students' art that became a high-profile media event.


UNTIL THE LATE 1950s, despite some private schoolus using art to ‘polish' non-academic boys, it was not taught in New South Wales boys' secondary schools, while girls took it only as a half-subject. This changed when the state was bought into line with Victoria to upgrade art to matriculation level. When the Wyndham Scheme extended secondary schooling to six years, art became a compulsory hundred-hour subject for all students with a follow-on elective course.

The post-war baby boom had already caused a shortage of teachers, but the shortage of specialist art teachers became acute in response to this requirement. Many art teachers had not completed high school; they were technical college graduates who had left school at fifteen. In 1957, Maurie Symonds, one of the most quietly effective educators of young teachers, established a four-year diploma for students with Leaving Certificates, integrating art and art education.

Symonds' ideas about how art could affect students were transformed by his experiences at the Armidale Teachers' College, which at that time was the home of the Hinton Collection of Australian art. He had seen how access to good, original works of art could open people's minds. He took this approach to Sydney Teachers' College before heading the art education program at Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education. The state government was dominated by the right wing of the Labor Party and Symonds was on the left. He had a firmly held belief that working-class children should know that the great traditions of art also belonged to them, and that through education there should be no barriers to success. He ensured that his students were given a well-rounded general education as well as knowledge of art, and emphasised the importance of teaching well, with a focus on the needs of the student.

Symonds died in 2007. In the eulogy at his funeral, one of the students he taught, Emeritus Professor Neil Brown, described the way ‘he stood up fearlessly for freedom of expression in the arts at Alexander Mackie Teachers College at a time when wowserism held sway among some of the more conservative academic staff and administrators'. As its graduates streamed out into schools, the innovative teaching at Mackie had a major impact. This was one element in building the inverse perfect storm. The next was unexpected.


THE CENTRALISED EDUCATION system administered one of the largest curriculum authorities in the world with an almost Stalinist rigor, and art had to take its place in the system. ‘The Art Branch' was created to supervise, control and support the influx of teachers. Because the making, teaching and external assessment of art needs space and creates mess, it was more convenient to locate the branch, first at Blackfriars and later at Five Dock, away from apparent centres of power. Specialist teachers with sufficient seniority to be head inspectors were thin on the ground, but the fledgling subject was fortunate in that one of the first appointed was Bob Winder, formerly a teacher at Sydney Girls' High and later director-general of education. He was joined by John Dabron, a music teacher who had hosted an ABC school radio program on art. As supervisor in art, Dabron became the passionate but eccentric personification of ‘the Art Branch'. Amanda Weate, a country teacher, was entertained with ‘stories of him padding down corridors with paint on bare feet'. The Art Branch gave her and other young teachers the kind of support other disciplines could only dream of.

Robyn Gordon, who taught art for many years, remembers: ‘Even though it was the art inspectors from Art Branch who came out to inspect us along the way for certification and then for any promotions, somehow it was a less intimidating experience because we felt a bit more like a small family group, with common interests and struggles to be fought to bring our subject up to parity of esteem with all other subjects in the curriculum.'

Dabron, Nita Playford, Bob Winder and Paul Milton established what Neil Brown describes as ‘an enlightened, folksy but threateningly authoritarian inspectorial system'. At times their approach ran counter to the official bureaucracy. When another country art teacher in his first year was suspended after local rail authorities decided one of his students had submitted an ‘obscene' work, Dabron's response was to send a supportive telegram. This small group worked hard to create an esprit de corps in the fledgling profession, well aware that within the hierarchy of schools, art teachers were often regarded as the resident eccentrics. Gordon remembers that when ‘a sizeable group of art teachers used to be gathered together each year for School Certificate and later, Higher School Certificate marking, Dabron would often cook up a storm in the dinner break and we'd be invited to share in some tasty food morsels'. Most art teachers felt their bureaucracy was on their side.


DESPITE ITS LANGUAGE of high moral purpose, the Wyndham scheme was, as the education historian W.F. Connell notes, ‘an administrator's reform' closely aligned to related reforms in other states. The art curriculum documents from the 1960s and '70s demonstrate a belief in the psychology of creativity, an approach that still shapes the visual arts curriculum in other states. In New South Wales, the curriculum was ‘aimed at developing in the child the ability to think imaginatively, to express his ideas adequately and confidently and to appreciate as far as possible what the artist has to offer' according to an early syllabus document. Images from art history were to be studied to enable ‘a broad understanding, tolerance, appreciation and the discovery of new directions'. However, sample lessons were more likely to direct the students to paint scenes of domestic realism.

Some teachers took the words of the curriculum to heart. In Sydney's sprawling suburban west, Granville Boys High had no visual arts tradition. Ken Reinhard, a teacher and practising artist, encouraged his students to make art about a thing they liked: cars. Reinhard spoke to commercial gallery dealers and arranged class-held exhibitions of their work in 1965, 1966 and 1967. The exhibitions received extensive media coverage, including serious reviews and a full-page illustration in The Bulletin. The popularity of this endeavour was not well received by other teachers, who complained to the Art Branch about boys being directed to make ‘modern' pop art. Bureaucracies tend to be suspicious of individual initiative. It may have been a coincidence that the external markers of the 1967 Higher School Certificate decided to fail the entire class. Reinhard left the school system in disgust and moved to Randwick Technical College to teach design. His achievements did not go unnoticed by those who exercised power in the state, and in 1975 Reinhard was appointed head of Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education, and subsequently director of the City Art Institute and dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales.

The Art Branch did not appreciate Reinhard's initiative, but it noticed that the exhibition was popular. After the first HSC in 1967 a selection of approved students' major works were shown in the foyer of the John Clancy Auditorium at the University of New South Wales, but the students were not told their work had been chosen until after the event. Yet the annual exhibitions increased in popularity. In 1982 the exhibition, which had moved to Sydney Town Hall, was renamed ARTEXPRESS. The next year a small selection of works were shown at the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of an education display. The event grew in popularity, and became the responsibility of the department's Community Relations Section, and in 1989 the gallery became the principal venue for an exhibition that now spreads across the state. Although the Art Gallery of New South Wales was at first wary of showing student art, its inhibitions dissipated as ARTEXPRESS became one of its star attractions, drawing thousands of school students, many of them aspiring future exhibitors, as well as the general public. The old ethos of denying praise for individuals' work was abandoned and high achievers dazzled in the limelight.

The selection is not necessarily of the most adventurous works entered. Kerry Thomas, a senior lecturer in art education who for many years worked as an inspector of creative arts at the Board of Studies, sees another benefit. ARTEXPRESS has become ‘conceivably an even more powerful benchmark for standards at the upper end of what is produced ... [although] on occasions some of the best artworks may not be exhibited despite their artistic merit – overlooked perhaps because of the reticence of markers or curatorial policy'. Yet she also notes that ‘there is an HSC examination that pays such attention to the artworks produced by students and is highly supported by those who wrote the syllabuses, teachers, students, systems and the broader community and is probably the awe of other states in Australia. My colleagues in the USA can't believe this degree of support. To them it is the stuff of dreams.'

As the first generation of the Art Branch retired, their replacements were often those they had nurtured. Paul Milton's genius was in picking talented young teachers, and he initially mentored Neil Brown who was seconded to the inspectorate in 1974 before teaching at Alexander Mackie. Others involved in the post-Wyndham curriculum included the art teacher and later visual arts consultant with the department Len Rieser, Sydney University's art historian Terry Smith and sculptor Ken Unsworth, who taught at Sydney Teachers' College. Their more reasoned approach can be seen in the incremental changes to curriculum documents. The growing recognition that learning art is part of the experience of learning to think and learning about life was by 1987 spelt out in greater detail in the curriculum documents: ‘Visual arts education is important because it involves the learning of a visual language. This visual symbol system is a non-verbal way of knowing which is the only way some aspects of the world can be comprehended and shared. It enables the student to communicate and express their ideas and feelings in a visual way and respond to the world around them with understanding, imagination and sensitivity.'

Amanda Weate, who by the late 1980s was teaching art education, worked with Brown on the syllabus committee to revise the curriculum so that students could better develop their cognitive abilities as they explored visual worlds. At the core of the curriculum is the idea that ‘making and studying in the visual arts is conditioned by different theoretical orientations which affect the way images and objects are identified, valued, interpreted, created and used'. As Thomas explains: ‘The aim is not to suggest that art can be neatly categorised, but rather to enable students to understand how different functions shape meaning and value. Visual arts then become a way of thinking, a kind of practical reasoning and thus a pathway to intellectual development and purposeful action.'


THE NEW SOUTH Wales innovations were resisted by the other states – especially Victoria, which was committed to an orthodox view of creativity. In the early 1990s, the opposing ideologies clashed on the political battlefield of a national curriculum. The Dawkins restructure of education is best remembered for its abolition of colleges of advanced education and the subsequent expansion of universities, but he also had ambitions to create a national school curriculum. In New South Wales, the Greiner government's landslide victory and the Carrick and Scott Reports meant the old education authorities were restructured and dedicated staff appointed to the new statutory Board of Studies to work in close consultation with tertiary educators and senior art teachers. ‘At this time we had two additional opportunities – and curriculum is about taking and making opportunities, it being insistently political – Neil Brown's ongoing research principally concerning theory of mind, and the resources being directed to the national curriculum,' says Weate.

New South Wales was not prepared to yield. The authors of the revised curriculum were able to convince both the Board of Studies and the politicians that the study of visual arts represented a pathway into cognitive development, and that the word ‘creative' was too small to encompass what visual perception and the making of art can do. By the 1990s, in the face of intransigence from both sides, the idea of a national curriculum for the visual arts and other subjects was abandoned.

Kerry Thomas, whose recently-submitted PhD thesis has the title ‘A qualitative analysis of creativity as misrecognition in the transactions between art teachers and their students in the final years of schooling', sees curriculum change as a series of adaptations that anticipate and respond to circumstances and events. Certainly it is true that nothing stays the same. The most recent ‘streamlining' of the New South Wales Higher School Certificate curriculum in the late 1990s eliminated further study in many subjects, including the visual arts. This has had the effect of downgrading art's status in the arcane calculations that decide which subjects are favourably weighted for the university admissions index. Now the cash-strapped New South Wales government is toying with the allocation of resources across all its portfolios and questioning whether it can cut the external marking of ‘major works' in a range of subjects, including the visual arts. This will not just damage the popular ARTEXPRESS; it will affect the integrity of the entire examination process. As Thomas says: ‘Marking is ... extremely powerful as a way of inculcating art teachers about standards which in turn invades the economy of the art classroom.'

Early this year, the arts and education ministers will decide whether and how to proceed with a national curriculum in the arts. This is an even more complex decision than other areas of the national curriculum because of the range of areas and the mix of skills and conceptual studies involved. As the experience of the visual arts curriculum in New South Wales shows, it is possible to adopt an ambitious agenda that examines the reality of creative practices in the visual arts and provide students with the opportunity to create work of the highest order, worthy of exhibition in the state gallery. The reasoning behind the New South Wales curriculum increases the options for students of all abilities. It gives the most able wings to fly, while giving cognitive tools to those who do not yet have the words to explain their thinking.

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